The 4 Most Unfair Levels and Stages in Video Games History, Ranked

Most gamers expect reasonable level designs in modern games, but it wasn’t always like that. Do you remember these unfair stages?

We often recommend media and products we like. If you buy anything through links on our site, we may earn a commission.

Video games haven’t always been as delicate with players as they are today. Back at the height of the arcade scene, game developers would routinely make their video games nearly impossible to beat in an effort to extract more quarters from players.

The trick, of course, was in the balance between nearly impossible and actually impossible. Players needed to feel like they were just one good run away from completing the level and attaining ultimate glory.

This approach to game design didn’t immediately go away when gaming culture shifted away from arcades to home gaming consoles and PC gaming. Some of the most frustratingly difficult and blatantly unfair levels came from this arcade mindset poisoning console video games.

Still, even though those levels were harder than they had any right to be, they were always right at the cusp of nearly impossible and allowed players to feel like they only needed one more try to get it done.

Here are our picks for the most unfairly difficult video game levels and stages made us want to smash our controller to bits.

4. The Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Every Legend of Zelda game has a water level. It’s been an unspoken rule for the series’ design, and—like most water levels throughout video games history—they’ve almost always been the worst in the games.

However, the N64’s Ocarina of Time took that nuisance to new heights with its version of the Water Temple. This level isn’t necessarily the most difficult in the game, but it’s easily the most frustrating.

Different puzzles throughout the temple can only be completed by setting the water level to certain depths. Raise it or lower it before you’re supposed to? You’ll find yourself having to cycle through it all again before you’re able to advance.

If you miss anything at all, which is easy to do in the darkness that shrouds the entire temple, then you’ll have to repeat the entire level and hope you don’t miss it again.

The level simply isn’t fun. Nintendo even made changes to it for the Nintendo 3DS port, making it easier to navigate! That says a lot about how frustratingly hard the level was on the Nintendo 64.

3. The Water Dam in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was way ahead of its time in many ways. It had an overworld map to move around on, remarkable graphics for the era, and unique gameplay between each of the Turtle characters due to their different weapons of choice.

Up until this section of the game, it was a fairly straightforward side-scrolling adventure. That all changed when the Shredder planted bombs along the water dam, forcing the Turtles to disarm them. Should be easy enough, right? I mean, Turtles do swim, after all!

What followed was one of the most unfair level designs in the history of gaming. There were several bombs in the water and missing even one would result in a game over. That alone wasn’t the bad part.

There were also spinning wheels of death to avoid, shock barriers to get past, and strangely toxic seaweed that would drain the life of the Turtles at the slightest touch. Again, all of these things could be OK…

But due to the limitations of the NES, only so much of the level could be loaded at a given time—which meant swimming into a new region could shift the player directly into an obstacle as it was loaded. Often, this resulted in death without warning.

Plus, the Turtles swam like they were filled with hot air, forcing them to “bounce” through the water rather than swimming, making it nearly impossible to avoid damage without multiple playthroughs.

Oh, and did we mention there was a timer? As if everything else wasn’t anxiety-cranking enough, of course there’d be a ticking clock.

2. The Turbo Tunnel in Battletoads

Battletoads was a video game that asked a simple question: What if toads could punch, kick, and were totally rad?

The game felt like a love letter to the Ninja Turtles, but also came with a really fun aesthetic and a great soundtrack. It was a true co-op game—until you discovered that you could indeed harm the other player, and that’s where friendships went to die.

But if there’s one thing this NES classic is most famous for today, it would have to be its Turbo Tunnel stage.

In the course of attempting to rescue their friends, the Battletoads make their way to a chasm. At the bottom, they find a tunnel and some speeder bikes that look like they could be straight out of Star Wars.

What follows was one of the most intense difficulty spikes you’ll ever find in console gaming. Each obstacle that came was instant death, and the game required split-second timing to avoid all of them. Jump even a hair too soon or too late and you were toast.

That would’ve been enough to classify this level as intensely unfair, but the worst bit was the lack of boundaries at the top and bottom of the screen when jumping. If you were too close to the top when jumping, you’d simply fall into oblivion with no warning at all.

1. Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

Punch-Out!! was one of the first iconic video games that managed to have an impressive array of fighters, each requiring a uniquely different strategy in order to beat them.

Most of the time, the difficulty of the game came down to learning the fighter’s patterns and weak points so that Little Mac could overcome them and move on to the next championship level. Most of them had moments of difficulty, but none felt outright unfair.

Until you came across Iron Mike himself. As a testament to how much he dominated the sport of boxing at the time, Mike Tyson was the final boss of Punch-Out!! for the NES—and this was the moment the game became truly unfair unlike any other video game.

Not only did Tyson fight at a blistering pace, but he also could knock a player down with a single blow. This left no room for error or mistakes. You had to fight perfectly or get a game over. It’s this unforgiving nature that still makes him the most unfair level in gaming history.

Similar & Trending

The 10 Most Challenging Video Games of All Time

The 5 Most Ridiculous Water Levels in Video Games

The Best NES Games on Nintendo Switch Online

The 7 Hardest Missions and Levels in Video Games That Are Near Impossible

The 7 Hardest Rage-Inducing Video Game Bosses of All Time

The Strange History of SNES’s Secret of Evermore, Explained

Gaming Console Originality Is Dead: 5 Reasons Why They’re All the Same

Why Sony Needs to Acquire the Metal Gear Solid Franchise: 4 Reasons

Why Don’t Gamers Use In-Game Mic Voice Chat? 5 Reasons